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Michigan has recorded its first case of chronic wasting disease in a wild deer — an ominous milestone linked with a fatal neurological disorder that has the potential to reduce the animal population over many years.

A single, free-ranging deer in Ingham County's Meridian Township tested positive last month for the disease, which affects white tail and mule deer, as well as elk and moose. The finding led state officials to set up a management and monitoring zone that covers nine townships across three counties.

They include:

Alaiedon, Delhi, Lansing, Meridian, Wheatfield and Williamstown townships in Ingham County.

Woodhull Township in Shiawassee County.

Bath and DeWitt townships in Clinton County.

"While it is a disappointing day for Michigan, the good news is that we are armed with a thoughtfully crafted response plan," DNR Director Keith Creagh said in a statement. "We are working with other wildlife experts at the local, regional, state and federal level, using every available resource to determine the extent of this disease, respond appropriately to limit further transmission, and ultimately eradicate the disease in Michigan if possible."

Chronic wasting disease is not known to pose any risk to humans. At this time, it is not expected to hinder deer hunters. But it could mean some changes in the core area of concern.

"In this three-county zone, we will have our entire array of deer hunting seasons," Chad Stewart, a deer specialist with Michigan's Department of Natural Resources, said Tuesday. "All hunters harvesting deer in this unit will have to check their deer (at state stations)."

Additional stations will be set up to deal with the demand during deer season. In addition to checking animals, the state is banning deer and elk feeding across the entirety of Ingham, Shiawassee and Clinton counties. And residents within the nine townships will be prohibited from possessing or salvaging deer killed in car crashes.

"Hunters processing deer harvested in the nine-township area should dispose of the leftover parts in their garbage or a landfill," the DNR website states. "Leftover parts from an infected deer, especially heads and backbones, contain (chronic wasting disease proteins) and if discarded on the landscape those prions can persist for decades."

Hunters are also advised to wear gloves while field dressing, bone out meat from the deer and minimize handling of brain or spinal tissue.

Chronic wasting disease is spread through the saliva, bodily fluids and feces of infected animals. Afflicted deer can seem thin, disoriented and uncharacteristically bold.

"The animals are thin because they are not eating," said Steve Schmitt, veterinarian-in-charge at DNR's Wildlife Disease Lab. "They show abnormal behaviors. They lose their fear of humans. ... Sometimes they walk in circles."

Chronic wasting disease is fatal, but animals can live for years with infection before dying. And that creates problems in controlling the spread of the disease.

Now, the state's task is to determine what kind of outbreak they have on their hands. Is the single Meridian Township deer an anomaly, or has the disease taken root in a wider population?

"If it is established (in the population), the modeling shows a decrease in the deer population could result," Schmitt said. "But the disease must build up to a substantial level for the decline in population to start."

The highest concentrations of chronic wasting disease have been reported in Colorado and Wyoming, where some population loss has occurred.

This is not Michigan's first brush with the disease. In 2008, it popped up in one Kent County deer-breeding operation. As a result, the state banned deer-baiting in the Lower Peninsula. The ban was lifted four years later.

jlynch@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2034

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